Something different to digest

Health policy and administration students challenged to eat on about $30 for one week

Displaying her food for the week, health policy and administration student Rebecca Fry participated in the SNAP Challenge, part of Patricia Miranda's Principles of Public Administration class (HPA 410). The challenge, which was held from Nov. 3 to 9, charged students with feeding themselves on about $30 a week, or about $4 a day. Students kept records of food purchases and consumption, and shared their experiences in a blog on the PSU SNAP Challenge website. Credit: Rebecca FryAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What’s it like to feed yourself on $29.40 a week?Just ask a group of Health Policy and Administration (HPA) students.

Patricia Miranda’s Principles of Public Administration class, HPA 410, took part in the nationally recognized SNAP Challenge earlier this month, which charges participants to live on the U.S. daily food aid benefit — about $4 a day — for one week. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

A program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the SNAP program offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families. To qualify, participants must meet certain resource and income guidelines.

A test beyond the classroom

Each student in Miranda’s class was given a pre-paid Visa gift card containing $29.40. They were told to use only that money to purchase food for themselves for seven days.

The assignment, which was held Nov. 3 through 9, included not only participating in the challenge, but also keeping records of food purchases and consumption; recording food entries to MyFitnessPal, an electronic health and fitness logging tool, to evaluate nutrition intake; and logging online entries to the PSU SNAP Challenge website.

“The purpose of this SNAP Challenge project is to heighten the learning experiences for HPA 410 students, draw attention to the issues of poverty and hunger, benefit the State College Food Bank, and raise awareness about ‘health in all policies,’” Miranda said. “SNAP Challenge week will give (students) a chance to experience…what life is like for millions of low-income Americans facing hunger.”

During the challenge, students could use the SNAP weekly budget to buy foods such as breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; and dairy products. They could not use the money to purchase beer, wine, tobacco, vitamins, medicine, nonfood items or prepared foods.

Miranda, who did the challenge herself last November, originally got the idea from showing the film “Food Stamped” to her students in HPA 410. The participants in the video — a couple — documented their experience on food stamps while trying to eat as healthfully as possible.

Miranda, just as she assigned to her students, also lived off $29.40 for one week. She shared some of her experiences on her Facebook page. “I discussed it with my students in my class,” she said.

Miranda’s initial trip to the grocery store during the challenge took more than two hours.

“I was surprised how much I learned,” she said. “I was trying to be very careful about my decisions.”

Miranda described herself that week as hungry, grumpy and distracted. “If you could imagine kids in school trying to learn (on SNAP),” she said. “I was worried: would I have enough food for the week?”

Miranda eventually decided to ration her food by making a 15-bean soup in a crock pot. She ate one cup each at lunch and dinner for the last part of the challenge. She didn’t use any of the ingredients she already owned. Her students, however, were allowed to use cooking oil and seasonings they already had in their pantries.

Though the challenge is part of the students’ grades, they were given choices in terms of how they controlled it, Miranda said.

“I think it’s easy for people to think this is not a real issue and it’s a myth that making healthy choices is expensive,” Miranda said. “(The students’) level of identification isn’t going to be near what true low-income families experience, but they will have an idea, and maybe an appreciation.”

Weighing decisions: students in Miranda’s class document the week

On the HPA 410 SNAP Challenge Assignment website, part of Sites at Penn State, students in Miranda’s class blogged about their experiences during the challenge. Participants wrote about their shopping trips, balancing their budgets, decisions about food choices, and how to prepare and ration their meals.

Rebecca Fry, a senior majoring in HPA and marketing, said after completing the challenge, her perspective on the decisions people facing hunger have to make has changed.

“I now realize how limited their choices are and how hard it must be to choose the healthier options,” Fry wrote in her blog on Nov. 14. “When you’re battling a very limited budget, it must be easier to pick the unhealthy, cheaper, more filling foods. Even people without a very limited budget struggle against that. It’s sad that healthy food options are expensive and may be outside the budget of many low-income Americans — this is why I strongly believe in local produce markets and subsidizing farmers.”

Even when low-income families do choose to buy the fresh healthy foods, they will be undernourished because they can’t afford as much of it, especially if they have higher caloric requirements or a family to feed, Fry said.

“Honestly I don’t know if I would have the strength to only buy healthy foods on a limited budget — I would probably cave often and buy ‘bad’ cheap foods just to feel comforted and full, and then I would feel guilty knowing how it affects me. It would contribute greatly to my overall stress,” she said in her blog. “This experience made me realize how much of a life of luxury I live, even when I think I’m ‘so broke’ or ‘so hungry’ or ‘dying of hunger.’ I almost cringe to think of saying those things now.”

Fry said the hardest part of the challenge wasn’t necessarily the amount of food she was consuming; it was limiting the variety of foods she could purchase.

“I started getting sick of eating the same things over and over, and started to resent my foods because I had no appetite for them anymore, but knew I needed to eat them,” Fry said. “I had no freedom to think ‘I'm not in the mood for a PB sandwich, I'll just drop by the store and pick up (something else) instead’ because I had no money left.”

Adrian Paskey, a senior in the Eberly College of Science, said among her staples for the week were grits, squash soup, rice and beans.

“Hooray, it’s day 3!” Paskey wrote in her blog. “I’ve learned that I can eat more, especially since I have plenty of food left. I was not hungry today because I ate 4 meals (pretty normal for me): grits for breakfast, peanut butter sandwich for second breakfast (I had to go to the lab at 5:30 this morning), rice and beans for lunch, and spaghetti and soup for dinner. I feel fine.”

“My only regret is that I put that stupid buttery vegetable spread in my entire batch of rice and beans, and it give it a yucky taste,” she continued in the same entry. “Other than that, all is well. I’m still missing my snacking between meals, but things were far better with a 4th meal! I might reuse the squash soup recipe when I’m not cost-constrained.”

Reflecting on her week, Paskey said the challenge wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be, and in fact, she has a lot of food left over.

“On first impression, I thought it would be harder to complete,” she wrote in her blog on day 7. “I think that I had access to reasonably priced fresh food and planned accordingly for times I knew I would be hungry, so the challenge was not as strenuous as I anticipated. I cut coffee, dairy, meat, and most sweets out of my diet for the week, and I’d be lying if I said I can’t wait to have them back.”

On the other hand, Andrei Nistor, a first-year master of health administration student, said he didn’t have much food left at all as the challenge came to an end.

On the final day of the challenge he wrote in his blog: “Today was the last day of the SNAP Challenge and I am very relieved. I do not think I could have gone more days eating budgeted food because I have little food left. Here is what I have left: 1) for breakfast, I have approximately 190 grams of cereal, 2) for lunch, I have 2 slices of pumpernickel bread, and 3) for dinner, I have 136 grams of salsa, approximately 230 grams of ground turkey, 19 grams of taco seasoning, approximately 4 grams of canned salmon, approximately 387 grams of spaghetti sauce, and 236 grams of spaghetti. These quantities were significantly depleted by what I ate today. For breakfast, I ate the same amount of cereal with milk as in previous days. For lunch, I ate 3 slices of pumpernickel bread with 9 tablespoons of pepper spread. As a snack in between lunch and dinner, I ate 1 slice of pumpernickel bread with the remaining tuna from yesterday. Finally, for dinner, I ate 1/2 cup of salmon, 1/3 cup of spaghetti sauce, and 168 grams of spaghetti.”

Nistor said the challenge affected his mood and concentration for the week.

“Further cuts would impact these things more,” he said. “Additionally, I would have to decide which foods I definitely need and which I do not need. Perhaps, I would have bought corn bread mix and beans to boil with water. These would have been cheap and filling, but not too healthy. Finally, I would be scared of eating my food before getting money to purchase more. I think this would lead me to eating bits at a time and never feeling full.”

On the sixth day of the challenge, Nistor said it became clearer to him that it is difficult to buy fresh and healthy food in every food category, and still have leftover money.

"I spent most of my budgeted money trying to buy fresh food that is not name brand," he said. "For families who have less money, this fresh and health food is expensive. Therefore, low-income individuals can rarely afford enough of this food to improve their health, all while retaining leftover money to pay for other expenses. Fast food will always be more economically convenient for low-income individuals. When these individuals are striving to make ends meets, leftover money becomes more important than good health because money can be quantified quicker than their health."

Not just a challenge for students

Dennis Shea, associate dean for undergraduate studies and outreach in HHD, was inspired to take part in the challenge this semester after learning Miranda completed it last year.

“I thought it was a great way of bringing an experience to life for students,” he said.

The issue, he said, has been an important one for a long time. “(In HHD), we realize health is connected to so much more than what happens in a hospital,” he said.

Shea said an experience like the SNAP Challenge can really help students open their eyes to the circumstances in which others live.

“Today, I am starting the SNAP Challenge, an exercise designed to gain an understanding of the difficulties of living on the food support we provide the poorest Americans,” Shea wrote in his blog on Nov. 3. “(Miranda) did the challenge last year to illustrate its lessons for students in her Public Health class. This year, she has challenged all of her students (and me) to try it.”

Shea purchased his food for the week the day before the challenge. He made sure to buy fresh and healthy food that could be combined in different ways, and that covered most nutrition guidelines. He also purchased items that appealed to him, he said. His shopping list for the week included celery, coffee, green peppers, rice and pasta. For protein he bought eggs, peanut butter and canned tuna.

“On Sunday, I went out to make my purchases — less than $30 to buy food for the week,” he wrote Nov. 3. “(Miranda) had shared some basic tips, but I did not take time to consult the handy guides provided by the government. I had hoped to stretch my dollars by getting some day old food, but a busy weekend meant I had to rush for my purchases later on Sunday, when many of the best deals were gone. I’ll see if those two mistakes will come back at me later this week. My final purchases totaled a little more than it should $33, in large part because the on sale peanut butter I had planned was sold out, so I grabbed the next bigger size…Looking over my plan for the week, I think breakfast and lunch will be easiest. The menus don’t look much different than what I usually eat, though much more monotonous — peanut butter and tuna rule lunch, cereal and bananas dominate breakfast.”

Breakfasts during the week, he said, usually consisted of Cheerios and fruit. His first two dinners were rice stir-fried with an egg, and Thai peanut noodles.

“For me the challenging times are the afternoon through the night,” he said, when he usually snacks on nuts.

“I find it hard to imagine the chronic stress that creates and the long-term effects that must have on health and well being,” Shea wrote on the second day of the challenge. “I’m dragging after two days of poor sleep. What must it feel like to live in poverty day after day after day? Not sure I can even imagine the tired that means.”

According to the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the average cost of food at home, on a “thrifty plan,” for an individual female, age 19 through 50, is $38.60 a week. For an individual male of the same age, it is $43.40. Both sets of data are from September 2014.

For more information on the Department of Health Policy and Administration at Penn State, visit

For more information on the SNAP program visit

Last Updated November 12, 2014